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Human Values are the hard stuff of innovation

Human Values are the hard stuff of innovation

Bob Dylan recently won the Noble Prize for Literature, and one of his iconic songs opens and closes with these lyrics:

Come gather 'round people wherever you roam
And admit that the waters around you have grown
…You better start swimmin' or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin'.

As the present now will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin',
and the first one now will later be last
For the times they are a-changin'. (1)

Such is the story of innovation today… and tomorrow. The times they are a-changin'.

Innovation is a top-3 strategic priority for executives worldwide, with the power to change our lives for the better – or not. For example, while innovations with pesticides and fertilizers has helped to feed a fast-growing planetary population, they have also caused toxicity to our groundwater and food chain.

So, how do we effectively coordinate and focus our innovative efforts towards positive benefits for all stakeholders? There’s a powerful trend we can call upon. Research is showing that human values – the positive qualities of good character found across cultures and across time – are now the hard issues for success. What used to be considered the “soft” issues of leadership are now bedrock-foundational. And there are companies who consider such values as fundamental to their industry leadership.


Watch these videos to learn more about the why and how of Human Values and Innovation:


Let’s look at 2 examples…

For 30 years, the Great Place to Work Institute® has conducted surveys all around the world with millions of employees each year to determine the best companies to work for. In their criteria for being a “great place to work,” we find evidence of human values as the operating principles for a company’s rating. (2)

Their evaluation is based on employees (not managers) ranking their company, and people experience a great place to work when there is a consistent practice of five dimensions. The first three taken together constitute the level of trust in an organization: Credibility, Respect, and Fairness. The two other relate to the workplace relationships: Pride in making a difference, and Camaraderie.

It’s significant that human values are determinants of a great place to work, where talent is attracted and retained. Indeed, between 1998 and 2015, Fortune 100 companies that were “best companies to work for” had a 50% better employee retention compared with companies in the Russell 3000 index and Russell 1000 index. (3) Perhaps more extraordinary is the fact that during that same time these companies had almost 2x growth in their market value compared with their peers!

As another example of extraordinary research, in 2015 Google released the results of a 2-year internal study on the qualities of its most effective teams out of a sample of 180 active teams. They ultimately found five key dynamics that set successful teams apart from other teams at Google: (4)

  1. Psychological safety: Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?
  2. Dependability: Can we count on each other to do high quality work on time?
  3. Structure & clarity: Are goals, roles, and execution plans on our team clear?
  4. Meaning of work: Are we working on something that is personally important for each of us?
  5. Impact of work: Do we fundamentally believe that the work we’re doing matters?

Inherent in these qualities of team effectiveness we find human values such as:

  • Psychological safety: Caring, authenticity, harmonizing diverse interests
  • Dependability: Keeping promises, being trustworthy
  • Structure & clarity: Seeing the whole, having disciplined thought
  • Meaning of work: Having noble intentions, doing no harm
  • Impact of work: Committing to higher goals, serving others

Of course, the Google teams are also noted for being highly innovative; the company’s success and reputation are built on the work of those teams. As companies empower more and more people to be innovative in their work, the active presence of human values helps ensure that the power of innovation is directed in positive, healthy ways… for employees as well as customers and other stakeholders.

The times they are a-changin. From all this we can see that values, especially human values, are no longer the soft stuff of leadership, innovation, and success. They provide the hard stuff needed to formulate the most transformative answers to “What should we innovate?” “How should we innovate?” and “Why are we innovating in the first place?”


Watch these videos to learn more about the why and how of Human Values and Innovation:

3The Russell 3000 index benchmarks the entire USA stock market. The Russell 1000 index benchmarks the largest 1,000 USA corporations.

William Miller's picture
About the author

William, co-founder of Values Centered Innovation, is passionate about bringing our moral faculties alive in our global economy!